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Thinking Globally and Acting Locally, Dedicated Group Works Toward Isla Vista Governance

Students, homeowners jockey for influence in under-funded, overcrowded community as authorization bill moves through Legislature

Isla Vista residents are considering the area’s future as legislation proposing a community services district makes its way through the Capitol in Sacramento.
Isla Vista residents are considering the area’s future as legislation proposing a community services district makes its way through the Capitol in Sacramento.  (Melinda Burns / Noozhawk photo)

Every Tuesday evening this year, a few dozen people, mainly students and homeowners, have been making history, drafting new ways to make their fractured community whole.

They meet in what used to be the Isla Vista clinic, and for now, they’re focused on Assembly Bill 3, introduced by Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Carpinteria, to allow a vote of the people on a community services district with taxation powers. Many of the long-timers don’t like the plan, but they want to be heard, so they’re helping to shape the legislation line by line.

More than a year after the tragic events of May 23, 2014, when six UC Santa Barbara students were murdered in Isla Vista by a deranged college dropout, there’s momentum for change in the area — a rare chance to “sequester a lot of power,” as a student put it, in the perennially under-funded and overcrowded community.

“It’s a magic moment, but it’s not going to be magic much longer,” said Tom Dixon, a longtime Isla Vista homeowner who has appeared with his wife, Sue, and Williams in a promotional video about AB3.

The bill has been passed out of the Assembly and will be taken up by the state Senate Governance and Finance Committee at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday. Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, the committee chairman, plans to visit Isla Vista on July 22.

“Isla Vista is a unique community, and I want to see for myself how the people there might be affected by this program,” Hertzberg said.

If AB3 is approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown this fall, Isla Vistans could be voting on a new community services district board as early as June, followed by a vote on a utility user tax in November 2016.

Other initiatives are moving forward, too.

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on June 10 approved $483,000 to refurbish the former church building next to the clinic as a community center — the largest county contribution in recent years toward a cherished Isla Vista dream.

And in response to heavy lobbying by the Associated Students of UCSB, the supervisors approved hiring a new sheriff’s deputy as a liaison between the community and the Isla Vista Foot Patrol.

Meanwhile, The Fund for Santa Barbara, a nonprofit community foundation, has launched an independent study on the financial feasibility of three governance options for Isla Vista: cityhood, a community services district and a municipal advisory council. The $65,000 study will be performed by Economic & Planning Systems Inc., a California land economics consulting firm, under the supervision of a community oversight committee.

The study is being paid for by The Fund for Santa Barbara; UCSB; Santa Barbara City College; the County of Santa Barbara; Jay Freeman, an Isla Vista business owner; Lanny Ebenstein, director emeritus of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association; and crowdfunding. A draft is expected to be ready for public review in early September.

“The Fund looks at this as a unique opportunity to bring people together and to offer objective fiscal information,” said Nancy Weiss, associate director of The Fund for Santa Barbara. “Our goal is for a safer and healthier Isla Vista.”

That’s what everyone wants, but the young and old don’t always see eye to eye. Who should run Isla Vista? The students, who are temporary residents, but make up the majority of the population? Or the handful of homeowners and renters who have spent a lifetime in the community?

(Kristin Jackson graphic)
(Kristin Jackson graphic)

Sometimes, on Tuesdays, their frustration is palpable, as in this exchange:

Homeowner: “The university wants us to pay out for the problems they have created ... You guys have to really consider why there are a whole lot of people your parents’ age who have been trying to get self-government for 25 years. You are going to create laws and you’ll be gone in a couple of years, and we’ll be here, paying the taxes and holding the bag. You’re handing a gift to the county and UCSB, and I haven’t seen any action from them. It’s shocking to me.”

Student: “We’re the ones being assaulted, and beat on by the police, and paying too much for an education that should be free and that you enjoyed. These issues cannot be resolved by the university or the county, because they don’t have the money. If you want the status quo, then say that. I have yet to hear another option that will change things.”

The numbers are on the students’ side. Of 15,000 Isla Vistans, 12,800 are student renters — potential voters who might be expected to support a utility tax that they share with their landlords, if they thought that the services provided under AB3 — potentially a parking program, planning commission, community center, tenant mediation board, municipal advisory council, enhanced policing and graffiti abatement — would improve their quality of life.

The new board would propose the tax rate. Preliminary estimates of the funding that could be generated by, say, a 6 percent tax on water, gas, trash, electricity, cable TV and Internet services range from $2 million to $3 million.

But the homeowners don’t want more taxation, even with representation. Together with some longtime renters, a group of them presented a letter to the Assembly in April, urging a “no” vote on AB3.

Among the 47 signers were some residents who have put in years of service on the Isla Vista Recreation & Park District board, which manages a $1.4 million budget, including more than $800,000 in transient-occupancy taxes.

Some of them have been in Isla Vista so long, they have witnessed the community’s three failed attempts to become a city, and the demise of the Isla Vista Community Council, the organization that gave birth to the park district in 1972. The county and UCSB pulled the plug on their funding for the council in the early 1980s.

The Isla Vista Property Owners Association, representing the outside investors who own most of Isla Vista, also is opposed to AB3, and, like the homeowners, wants the Local Area Formation Commission (LAFCO) to decide on the proposed services district. Under AB3, LAFCO would review the feasibility study and make a recommendation, but the voters would have the final say.

Chuck Eckert, a spokesman for the Property Owners Association, has warned that new taxes would raise housing costs.

“It’s too bad that a small group of very active, primarily students who have a transient stake in IV have successfully manipulated several bodies to support AB3,” he said.

If the community services district board is approved, the long-timers have made it clear they’ll run candidates for it.

As designed by the Tuesday evening group, the board would be made up of seven voting members: one appointed member each from the county and UCSB, and five elected Isla Vistans.

It was the students who argued in favor of bringing the county and UCSB to the table with full voting power, in order, they said, to make these institutions more accountable.

(Kristin Jackson graphic)
(Kristin Jackson graphic)

In a rare public comment one Tuesday evening, attending as an observer, George Thurlow, special assistant to UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang on Isla Vista, told the group, “If you want to engage the university in changing the culture out here and investing in the community, you have to treat them as a partner and not as an enemy.”

Thurlow has said it would set a precedent for UCSB to be included within the district boundaries, and Yang is to meet this month with representatives from Williams’ office to discuss the matter.

Future discussions return to the thorny question of where to draw the boundaries for the proposed district. There is little consensus about who should vote and pay the new tax. Should freshmen in campus dorms be included? What about graduate students in the UCSB apartments on El Colegio Road?

At Tuesday meetings, the homeowners have largely favored leaving out the UCSB campus, saying that only the residents of Isla Vista proper should vote.

But the students have noted that freshmen who live in campus dorms may move to Isla Vista as sophomores, juniors or seniors. The students have said they don’t want to repeat the example of the City of Goleta, which left out Isla Vista — with LAFCO’s blessings — when it incorporated in 2002.

“We’re here because other entities have distrusted us,” said Cameron Schunk, a graduating senior who has since been hired by Williams as a field representative. “Do we want to build a government on distrust? You can’t disenfranchise a population based on age.

“On behalf of all the students, I would like to say, ‘We don’t want to control all of Isla Vista.’”

No matter what happens, there is a sense on Tuesday evenings that now is the time for Isla Vistans to take charge of their own destiny.

“Let’s keep up the motivation to stay involved,” Jeremy Roark, a UCSB psychologist and an advocate for the Isla Vista community center, urged the group. “This room cannot ever go empty.”

 – Melinda Burns is a Noozhawk contributing writer

(Kristin Jackson graphic)
(Kristin Jackson graphic)

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